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CASA news 04/16

The evenings are drawing in, and it’s time to start clearing our backlog of news on casualisation in Australian higher education, and around the world. While we’re at it, hello to our new CASA subscribers, and a cheer to the L H Martin Institute who were very prompt to update the report on their website into contingent academic employment to show CASA as an independent blog. So we’ll start with their report, and we recommend it strongly to readers.

The dilemma that increasing casualisation presents to Australian universities has been summed up in the sector’s coyness about it. This silence has had many consequences: undergraduate students kept largely in the dark about the working conditions of the people teaching them; PhD recruitment evading the question of real career prospects, and increasingly looking like a scheme to develop an academically qualified casual workforce for the future; university administrators managing casualisation as a reputational or quality risk with one hand while at the same time trying to do more of it, and more cheaply, with the other; and activists caught between between trying to end casualisation and trying to improve casual working conditions in the meantime.

This is why we think the LH Martin/AHEIA report is important: it’s a sign that the business end of the sector is starting a new conversation about casualisation, kicking off with a rebrand of the c-word. In this report, contingency covers both fixed-term and hourly paid casual or sessional employment. This provides a better sense of just how much higher education work is done by people with very short-term capacity to make life plans based on reliable income, whose lower superannuation contributions predict later-life financial challenges, and who have no or limited access to leave provisions.

Overall, the report is a really thorough review of the literature on Australian academic casualisation from many sources and over many years, and although the authors claim that it doesn’t turn up anything new, there are some strategic asides to keep an eye on, especially in relation to universities’ public reputation if all this becomes more widely known:

For many Australians, excessive use of casual employment is seen as exploitation. This is particularly the case for young people engaged predominantly as casuals in service sector industries, leading to uncertainty of employment and lesser benefits and career prospects. (15)

The report confirms that we are now at the point where the majority of academics working in Australian universities are contingently hired, and the authors suggest this also means the majority of teaching is delivered by academics hired casually. This means that casualisation is not contingent in any sense of responding flexibly to short-term term hikes in demand. Rather, universities openly plan to service the majority of their teaching casually as “a less costly form of engagement, and without the rigidities and safeguards pertaining to other forms of employment.” (4)

The report is meticulous in covering the tangible and intangible disadvantages faced by less costly academics. These disadvantages are the result of a complex accommodation of casual employment in a sector whose processes and expectations are only slowly catching up to the reality that casual employment is strategic rather than tactical. Some of the disadvantages also rebound on institutions in messy ways. The fact that there is no provision in casual teaching employment for research establishes casual teaching work as a serious negative impact on early career development. But considering how much casual work is done by PhD students and early career post-doctoral academics, this also suggests that a sector-wide strategy for teaching is holding back sector-wide research, and is proving a pretty shabby return on the sector’s investment in research career training.

The report suggests further areas for investigation that all make sense. The boldest recommendation is that systemic casualisation can’t go on expanding or being resisted primarily through the incremental haggling of individual enterprise agreement negotiations between universities and unions. Certainly, as a report co-authored with the national employer association, there’s an element of “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” But for those trapped in the mill of contingency, this is at least a sign that the sector is starting to break the silence about its casualisation problem.

We’re all ready for this to happen.

What else is happening?

One of the issues raised in the L H Martin report is the rise of independent temp agency contractors emerging as labour suppliers for universities. In March we reported that the University of Warwick based Unitemps popped up as a lanyard sponsor for the Universities Australia conference. Alert readers of Stephen Matchett’s daily briefing Campus Morning Mail will also have noticed the tutoring company Your Tutor and Sessions, the sessional employment broker, enjoying cameo roles. What’s at stake here is the rising business cost of managing casual work in-house, and we should expect to see more of it. The state of in-house hiring being what it is—chaotic, improvisational, and thickly blanketed with bureaucratic busywork—it’s not necessarily the case that academics looking for casual work would be worse off in the short term. But universities need to be very careful about promoting ideals like student-centred team-teaching on the one hand, and using call centre models to develop a radically disconnected two-tier academic workforce on the other. And all of us should be asking questions about whether employees of other organisations could enjoy even the minimal protection the NTEU offers its casual members.

What’s happening elsewhere?

We’re delighted to report that the UK Guardian’s Anonymous Academic ‘Working as a casual academic? zip your lip and do as you’re told‘, that was very widely passed around, is by an Australian writer. So if you missed this one, take a look, as it’s from our sector—not from the UK, as we originally thought. And if you’re an academic in secure employment who has ever told a casual staff colleague “that’s just how it is”, maybe read it twice.

In the US, there is increasing attention to the real cost of attending college. What do universities spend their money on? Is it buildings? football coaches? presidential salaries? or those who actually teach? In ‘Academia made Adjuncts the Newest Members of the Lower Class‘, The Huffington Post (not a poster organisation for compensation itself) looks at this from the student perspective, summed up simply:

For now, we can only hope that we don’t end up working for our alma mater when we graduate.

As the northern hemisphere summer approaches, Monica dePaul is blogging her ‘Unemployed Summer‘ experience of in-house hiring and seasonal lay offs:

Each semester, I train another set of future professionals to improve their communication and interpretation skills so that they can survive in the real world, so they can thrive in their personal and professional pursuits, whatever those may be. However, here I am, unemployed yet again, right on schedule. If success is measured in steady employment and financial security after college, then I’m an ironic failure. My job is essentially to train my students to not be like me.

The L H Martin report didn’t find much evidence in the literature that casual work in Australian universities is yet treated as fully competitive recruitment. In the US community college sector, adjuncts go through a full interview process. An article this week on how to succeed in interviewing for adjunct work drew some feisty responses in the comments.

The problem with a “positive and refreshing” article giving advice to interviewees for part-time jobs is that it further contributes to the normalization of such part-time work, and it feeds into the false idea that these jobs are a pathway to better terms of employment (rather than a replacement of those terms of employment). Most people “fresh out of graduate school” are looking for a career that will allow them to build a life for themselves and their families. The fact that all you have to offer them is part-time work with dubious advancement prospects is not something that calls for a refreshingly happy and positive take.

That’s got the backlog moving! Thanks for sharing the news around your networks, and we’ll be back as soon as we can.

Karina and Kate

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

Discussion

10 thoughts on “CASA news 04/16

  1. if casualization in unis goes only a little bit further graduates will be hard pressed to find anyone qualified to supervise their higher degrees. Is this part of the plan? Or just inadvertant unavoidable collateral bumps on the way to be smoothed out in the “fullness of time” as the wily old headmaster used to say? By how much does casualization makes constructive dismissal easier?

    Posted by jospanner | May 16, 2016, 7:06 pm
    • Hello, welcome.

      This question about the contracting supervisory capacity of universities is a critical one. In disciplines with higher rates of casualisation, the impact on research development starts very early. Students who make their way to graduation substantially tutored by academics hired casually will have had fewer conversations about continuing to an Honours year, for example. And then if they do continue, Honours supervision falls to a much smaller group of full-time colleagues than the overall teaching group, a pattern that continues to PhD supervision.

      This doesn’t have to be a plan. It seems more likely that the reduction in supervisory capacity is an unintended consequence of the shift in proportion of academic staff who are hired to cover both teaching and research, as opposed to casual staff hired only to cover undergraduate teaching in the most minimal way.

      This doesn’t answer the constructive dismissal question — also certainly worth asking.

      Posted by Kate Bowles | May 16, 2016, 8:27 pm
      • Hi Kate and Jo,

        Some thoughts on this, as a former academic who was asked to informally supervise Honours and RHD students. (Yes, informally, as I didn’t have the obligatory three-plus years contract to cover an RHD student through to graduation.) I wonder how many other contingently hired academics are being asked to do this, as one of the items to ‘tick off’ on their CV and responses to selection criteria is the supervision of postgraduate students? This is another pathway to exploitation, at minimal cost to the university (for me it was an unpaid role) and also the informal supervisor would (as usual) feel that there was a need to support students through the postgraduate experience, i.e. be the major contributor in what are supposed to be shared supervisory allocations. This opens up the pathway to lowering costs in the burgeoning postgraduate student market. However, it could backfire on the universities if this becomes standard practice, as postgraduates begin to realise their destiny if staying in academia is the exploited supervisor, who was previously their exploited tutor/lecturer.

        Posted by Shea | May 17, 2016, 9:09 pm
  2. Having racked up more than a decade on the merry-go-round of casualised employment in Higher Education, I have had some interesting experiences talking to Faculty regarding supervision. In recent years I have had a growing number of students contact me with requests for honours and HDR supervision. The standard response from Faculty has been ‘no,’ particularly with (internal) honours students.

    In the last twelve months, I received requests from students with degrees from Group of Eight (go8) universities (one with a degree from a respected international institution as well). The initial Faculty response was effectively ‘no’, albeit effectively (permanently) deferred through inferences to ‘looking into it’, ‘policies and processes’ and ‘paperwork’.

    Important to note here is my growing international research profile and scholarly reputation — all self-funded (this university repeatedly claims my research as theirs, including the financial benefits). Requests for supervision are based on my research.

    Routinely listed in selection criteria on academic job postings, my interest in supervision is also based on enjoying teaching and research (I continue to question the merits of an academic career given the current state of affairs).

    There is one reason the Faculty agreed to ‘allow’ me to supervise this time around: I suggested (i.e. threatened) I could take the students (and the associated government funding) elsewhere. The decision, which had dragged on for months, was made within 24 hours of making the ‘threat’.

    What may seem like a positive outcome is (still) littered with issues. Whilst I continue to undertake what in effect is the primary supervisor role, my name is conspicuously absent from all paperwork. I had approached such simple, formal, recognition as the next battle, prioritising HDR students first and foremost. I am still ruminating over ways to approach this (i.e. strategically, pragmatically) whilst also having thoughts of just accepting it.

    The latter is another example of the ‘yeah, sure’, rooted in precarity…

    Posted by colin | May 18, 2016, 9:51 am
  3. Thanks for your discussion of our LH Martin Institute/AHEIA report. I can’t talk on behalf of AHEIA or others, but if around half of all teaching work is done by casuals (our best guess), then on the face of it it does look like casualisation is not based on “responding flexibly to short-term term hikes in demand”. At least not purely. But we have to remember that many budget responsibilities are delegated to departments and they would have less security than if it was done centrally (overall student demand may be stable for a university or even a department, but fluctuate between different courses/units).

    The “lower cost” argument is probably more applicable, but there are still probably some holes in the lower cost argument if we are interested in quality of teaching, impact on retention, student satisfaction and time spent supervising new casuals. Unfortunately I don’t know of any studies which show the negative impact of casualisation on students in an empirical way. If anything, it seems that student satisfaction and quality of teaching has increased as casualisation has increased. That is not to say that we could not do better if there was greater job security, it is just that the anecdotal data does not point to a big short-term problem for universities (of course it remains a big problem for casual academics and the long term impact on the academic profession).

    It is a really complex topic. Not all casuals are doing it tough. At my uni (Melbourne) there are apparently more FTE casuals at Levels D & E than below that level. I assume they are not hired casually because it is cheaper.

    Hopefully we will at least be able to generate an honest discussion about the incentives and reasons for casualisation. They are diverse.

    Posted by Peter Bentley | June 1, 2016, 5:05 pm
    • Thanks so much for your comment here Peter, and on the previous post. We are really delighted to welcome you.

      We are certainly dealing with a diverse situation that is also in transition. Having a discussion about how complicated things are, across different universities (and different campuses within the same universities, in many cases) will really help us move on from the current tendency to use anecdotes about one experience of casualisation to stand for all. As you say, not all casuals are doing it tough; and not all adjuncts are Angelina Jolie either.

      What does seem to be consistently problematic is that information circulating to the whole profession about the nature and scale of contingent employment is poor, and information given to prospective HDR enrolees about the academic job market is patchy. This is why we were so pleased to see your report, as it’s a big step towards having a more open conversation.

      If we’re moving to a situation where some form of casualisation is a legitimate budget balancing move, then we need also to be able to expect transparency about this, especially in front of students. And you’re right, more research on the student experience of casualisation would be useful. It may not be the case, for example, that this impact would be felt primarily in student satisfaction with teaching, especially given the nature of — and participation in — surveys that measure this.

      Posted by Kate Bowles | June 1, 2016, 5:56 pm
      • Yes, we must certainly not get caught up with anecdotes. The “happy casual” exists, but research shows they are overwhelmingly those who have other employment, scholarships or other primary funds. While this group are very important, perhaps increasingly so in professional disciplines, it cannot be conflated with academic aspirants whose primary income is from casual employment. Likewise there are cases for casual employment on flexibility grounds, but universities and academics must resist it being the default position rather than better managing risk. The greater concern is that casualisation is the default because casuals will always be cheaper and eager to impress. We all know there are power imbalances inherent in casualisation, plus power imbalances in the academic hierarchy, and these likely underpin the unpaid work of casuals (making them even more cheaper). Irrespective of flexibility, casuals may be preferred for cost reasons even if other reasons are given.

        I don’t know what solutions there may be. The nearest alternative to casual is fixed-term, but as our paper outlines, there seems to be restrictions in the award and EBAs on the use of fixed-term positions for teaching-only functions, which leaves the options left between casual versus ongoing. I can’t see universities hiring people on ongoing one-day-per-week teaching positions, very few professional job in general are offered on a part-time basis, and universities would not want to pay people during the non-teaching period. The new scholarly teaching fellow positions are an alternative, but it remains to be seen whether universities see the benefit in them and they don’t really address the short-term nature of much casual work.

        More transparency and more data would be helpful, but even with the data there is no clear threshold for what is “too much” casualisation. We see casualisation steadily increasing and can claim it will have a negative impact on teaching, but we don’t have data to support this. It is almost like we need a crisis in order to justify change.

        As for the PhD students and their information about career prospects, I am a bit torn. I sympathize, but PhDs ought to be amongst the brightest in our society and it does not take too much effort to scan the lack of job advertisements, the poor success rate for funding applications and the casual/insecure nature of the jobs that do exist. PhDs should rely on this sort of irrefutable data when making their judgments about academic careers,(it would help if we had a national register for recording new positions, new recruits, retirements, turnover by academic field), rather than vague references to future career opportunities after the retirements of senior staff.

        Posted by Peter Bentley | June 3, 2016, 11:09 am
        • I’ve just returned from an enlightening discussion on the issue of transparency and accountability around academic casualisation with colleagues who are accounting academics and researchers. They suggested (among other things) a version of the product disclosure statement for every unit or course taught, clearly stating the teaching team composition including continuing to casual teaching staff ratio, staff to student ratio, and a breakdown of the course hours taught by continuing and by casual staff. Also, details of the proportion of the individual course fees that go towards teaching and those that go towards research.

          Posted by Karina | June 3, 2016, 3:04 pm

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